Before Samantha Fish appears in the music video for “Blood in the Water,” from 2017’s Belle of the West, we see a man running in slow motion, his brow furrowed, his amplified breath bursting through the silence. When Fish comes into view, she’s alone in a darkly lit, crimson bedroom. Her wide-set eyes look distant as she tunes a Fender Jaguar.
“Run from your people,” Fish sings as the camera alternates between her bedroom lament and the man, who’s now driving a convertible across a dusty country road, looking anxiously over his shoulder. Figures dressed in white—a woman and child, an old man—appear and disappear in his rearview mirror. “Run from your home,” Fish croons. “What is the matter?/ What’s goin’ on?/ I see the panic/ I hear the howl/ Tell me what did they do now?”
By the time she gets to the hook, her voice lilting over the words, “there is blood in the water,” two storylines are coming into view. There’s the man who’s desperate to run from something he can’t quite seem to escape—and there’s Fish, who’s haunted as much by his memory as by the frustration of not understanding where he went or why.
Belle of the West is full of deceptively spare lyrics and direct, rhythm-focused melodies that convey a mix of narratives or almost poetic snapshots of emotion. They tend to come couched in bluesy riffs on different facets of Americana. One moment, a song evokes Leadbelly (the repetition and foreboding images in “Blood in the Water,” written about Fish’s loss of a loved one to suicide, is reminiscent of “In the Pines”); the next, echoes of the Cajun-flavored country sound (“Need You More”) make their way into the mix, thanks in part to the addition of a fiddle. In some ways, the album feels like a culmination of things Fish has worked steadily towards for the past few years—among them, her songwriting and the way she uses her voice in relation to her award-winning guitar chops.
“Lyrics are something people can hold onto, so to me songwriting is everything,” says the 29-year-old Kansas City, Missouri native, speaking from her newly adopted hometown of New Orleans, where she settled last spring. “The voice is something that really delivers the emotion and carries the heaviness of the song. And really living the songs and feeling it—that’s what makes it relatable to people. I think it’s the most important thing I do at this point.”
Fish’s devotion to getting inside the music that way might help explain how she successfully jumped from releasing Chills & Fever, a retro-soul-meets-garage-rock set of lesser known vintage covers to the Hill Country blues–inspired, Luther Dickinson–produced Belle of the West in the space of eight months. The former features members of the Detroit Cobras alongside a playful Fish, whose vocals take on a kittenish vibe on some tracks. On the latter, guests include Lightnin’ Malcolm (a friend since Fish was a teenager), Jimbo Mathus, Sharde Thomas and Lillie Mae Rische.
“It’s got Mississippi all over it,” Fish says.
Despite the guests and regional focus, the material stays true to who Fish is as a voice in blues and roots music these days.
Fish looked to rock for inspiration before she dug into the blues—a path she says left her “in love with the rougher edges” of most music. While releasing a series of high-charting, critically praised albums since 2011’s Girls With Guitars, she dutifully worked on her voice, taking lessons as much as possible. She enlisted hit-making country songwriter Jim McCormick as a co-writer for a few songs on 2015’s Wild Heart. As a guitarist, meanwhile, she’s continued to wow fans ranging from Buddy Guy to the cigar box guitar scene with her blistering six-string electric solos and the occasional oil can guitar outing.
“She’s not afraid to take risks,” says bassist Chris Alexander, adding that when he first saw her play, he was struck most by “her honesty.” That carries over into her writing, too. “It comes from an intensely personal place,” he says.
Fish expanded the band for Chills & Fever and kept the larger lineup for Belle of the West.
“It took a little more thinking putting the show together after that,” she admits. “But now it’s like, balancing this Americana and R&B sound and putting horns on the Americana album and putting fiddle on Chills & Fever … It’s been really fun and sort of a stretch, creatively, to get it all to fit together.”
Although Alexander suggests the limits of genre don’t seem to concern Fish, she acknowledges her home-base world of the blues tends to be older and male-dominated, quipping that she’s always dealt with “people walking into a bar and being like, ‘Looky there, that girl’s playing the guitar.’”
Fish seems too focused on connecting with people through music to let those matters bother her, though.
“I’ve always felt like blues has been the longest standing American art form because it’s relatable,” she says after invoking B.B. King’s belief that blues represents the human condition.
“Just because I am who I am right now doesn’t mean I can’t feel something significant, too.”
SAMANTHA FISH: FRIDAY, APRIL 27—BLUES TENT, 4:15 P.M.